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Leadership & Management: Notes from the Ela Conf 2016 Panel

Moderator’s notes, courtesy Alisha Miranda

This past Saturday, I was privileged to attend and speak at Ela Conf, a conference about empowering more women to be leaders in tech. The conference covered topics such as transitions, either into tech from other fields, or within tech into management, overcoming impostor syndrome, how to get started technical blogging, how to craft your personal narrative, and more. The conference was wonderful, and one of the most friendly, social-anxiety-busting gatherings I can recall since AdaCampDC. My panel was called “Leadership and Management,” and the other wonderful contributors were Alisha Miranda (moderator), Yash Prabhu, and Caro Griffin.

The abstract I originally submitted to Ela Conf was “How to Lead without a Fancypants Title,” but I was pleased to be invited to speak on this panel instead. Someday, I’ll get to do that talk for real. For now, I’m sharing some of the panel’s draft questions (credit: Alisha Miranda) and the answers I prepared in my notes. But first, here are some awesome sketchnotes from attendees:

Can we get a Twitter length intro from each of you: your name, your current role, and perhaps the first time you became a manager or leader?

My name is Alison Rowland, currently I’m a Senior Data Engineer consulting with the DNC, and the first time I became a leader was at the Sunlight Foundation, about four years ago, when the project and technical lead for my team left, and I managed to convince my boss that I should be allowed to move up into the tech lead role.

What does success look like as a manager?

I think the single biggest sign of success is having good communication and trust, between members of the team, managers, clients, and other teams. No matter what happens, if you have good communication, you can usually weather the storms that life and business can throw at you.

How do you as a manager showcase the intangible impact you’re contributing?

This is still something I’m figuring out. It’s harder when you’re just managing people. But documenting the ways in which your team has succeeded or improved, and regularly sharing them with your bosses, as well as socializing and celebrating achievements with your team, AS a team, can help share that impact.

Any core values you strive to emulate as a leader?

As a leader, I like to emphasize humility, and that everyone is in a constant state of learning and growing, so that everyone can feel safe asking questions. I also believe that striking the right balance between candor and being a “shit umbrella” is really important for technical leaders.

Can you talk a little about how you communicate to junior team members or colleagues?

Be kind, be clear, ask questions to help people clarify their own thinking, encourage all communication to be open/public (GitHub, Slack public channels).

Can you talk a bit about building up confidence to taking the next step in becoming a team lead? How do you earn trust from your team members?How about from a dev lead standpoint?

Demonstrate your accomplishments, ask for that promotion. Give back to your team, be a multiplier. Try to become the developer that others go to for help. Get involved in higher level, architectural discussions. Bring up concerns and ideas for fixing technical debt with your manager.

For those aspiring to be in senior roles, it’s important to consider how your progress and goals align with management needs. I’m learning additional responsibilities often required of me. Anyone have tips on balancing people, projects, and resources in a fast-paced organization?

Prioritization is everything. Make sure that your people have time to focus on one thing even if they are split across multiple projects. Also, make sure you find out what your people are interested in doing to help grow their skills and career. They will be more effective when they’re working on those things.

It can be challenging to exercise authority or influence work culture without coming across the wrong way. How do we find a good spot in the middle in being assertive?

I tend to be less assertive than I should be, so whenever I write, I try to do an editing pass just to remove softening phrases from my writing such as “I think” or “it seems like.” I also try and remove “I” from my writing as much as I can, to focus the conversation on the facts and situation at hand, rather than on my thoughts or perception of it.

Navigating the politics of the workplace is just another barrier in our way. How can we stay ahead of the game? What are some resources we can turn to to stay competitive?

When I got my first official management gig, I read a lot of books on leadership. My favorite one was “The First 90 Days.” It has some great advice on working within different types of organizations, at different phases of their lifecycle, how to build alliances to help you get your job done, and dealing with (and generating) change.

How do you engage in healthy conflict resolution and build bridges?

Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions. It helps people clarify their stance. Always try to assume that the other person is coming from a place of good faith. Also, 9 times out of 10, when I’m about to disagree with someone, but make myself step back and ask them about their position, it turns out that the problem was more misunderstanding or miscommunication than disagreement.

Who taught you to be a manager? How do you recommend finding a mentor to help you take that leap?

My very first project manager at my first corporate job was the best manager. He had switched majors in college from CS to Business, so he knew enough to trust his engineers, listen to them, and get out of their way. He also served as that all-important “shit umbrella” between us and all the shifting priorities that would have otherwise fallen out of upper management.

If you want to find a mentor, just ask someone doing the work you want to be doing!

Self-care is something we talk about frequently at my job. Any tips on being emotionally resilient?

For me, it’s all about taking care of my body. Get 7+ hours of sleep, drink lots of water, take vitamins every day (especially Omega-3’s and calcium/magnesium), and get some exercise.

Some of us may also need to practice letting go. It’s healthy to find people to vent with, but it can be dangerous to get stuck in a “venting club,” because it can keep you from seeing the other side or more nuanced views of things.

There were more questions, but these were all those for which I had relevant answers. Yash recently wrote up her own impressions of the panel, linked below. If the other panel participants have notes they’d like to share, I’d love to add or link to them here!

Thanks to everybody who came out to our panel; it was standing-room only, and the audience seemed really engaged, and asked a bunch of great questions at the Q&A! Looking forward to next time!

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